Campfire is a relatively new graphic novel publisher based in India. The folks there started out focusing on retellings of classic works of literature, but in the last year they’ve begun broadening their horizons, expanding into original works, retellings of mythological tales, and biographies of famous people from around the world. Two of the biographies came across my desk and I was struck by how much I enjoyed each of them, especially since I am not a big biography reader. Lewis Helfand’s stories of the lives of Orville and Wilbur Wright and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were inspiring, but most importantly, interesting.
The Wright Brothers
Written by Lewis Helfand; Illustrated by Sankha Banerjee
Ages 9-14; Grades 4-8
Campfire, November 2010, ISBN 978-93-80028-46-0
72 pages, $9.99
Helfand uses a fairly straightforward biographical format to tell the story of the lives and work of Orville and Wilbur Wright. He starts with a story about one of their failures and then goes back in time to cover their childhood. Readers see how outgoing Orville was–even as a very young boy–and then compare that with Wilbur’s shyer personality. But both men were determined and that determination was what carried them through their lives. Helfand keeps the brothers from seeming like mythical figures by showing their failures, but he also shows that those failures were a source of motivation, not merely frustration, which is what makes the Wright brothers’ story so inspiring. And their story doesn’t end with their triumphant flight. Helfand follows through with the rest of their lives, so readers learn what happened next and how the brothers were not able to rest on their laurels, but had to keep fighting to keep their work from being forgotten or overshadowed. One particularly nice touch is that the roles of women in their lives were highlighted. Their mother Susan passed down to them them her aptitude with machines and their sister Katharine was a constant source of support throughout their lives.
The problem with many nonfiction and biography graphic novels is that they tend to rely too heavily on text boxes and illustrated panels. Helfand falls into this as well, but it is a credit to his writing style that the comic never feels forced or dry. Banerjee’s soft colors and gentle lines give the right historical flavor to the drawings and his character designs are always clear enough for readers to follow easily. As with all Campfire titles, there are extras in the back–in this case factoids about the history of flight and a crossword puzzle, a nice touch for classroom use.
Conquering Everest: the lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Written by Lewis Helfand; Illustrated by Amit Tayal
Ages 9-14; Grades 4-8
Campfire, August 2011, ISBN 978-93-80741-24-6
96 pages, $9.99
Helfand switches things up a bit in his biography of Hillary and Norgay, allowing his characters to tell their stories for the first half of the book. Starting with Norgay, the two men alternate talking to each other about their lives and the events that brought them to an Everest base camp in 1953, just before their historical scaling of the summit. The use of different colored borders on their text boxes and a clear voice for each man keeps readers from getting confused. In the second half of the book, a narrator takes over and readers ascend to the heights, feeling the danger and excitement along the way. As with The Wright Brothers, Helfand does not neglect the “what happens next” part of the tale. Readers learn about Hillary and Norgay’s lives after their famous climb, how both men continued to travel and how they used their fame to support educational and environmental causes. And, even though Hillary and Norgay are the focus of the book and even though they were the ones who ultimately made it to the top of Everest first, Helfand is clear about the number of people who made it possible for them to get there and how their work was very much a part of a group effort.
With this volume the text box voiceover is not as overpowering and the transition between first-person discussion and a third-person narrator is almost seamless, so readers will not be thrown out of the tale at the halfway point. Tayal’s art is rougher than Banerjee’s, fitting for the more adventurous story. He and Helfand are adept at putting readers directly into the cold and hardship and even those without much knowledge of mountain climbing will be able to easily follow what is happening. The extras here include a glossary and facts about young climbers who have scaled Everest’s peak.
In addition to their obvious use in schools and libraries, homeschool families will want check out these two works. Both show men who achieved their dreams outside of the normal ways of schooling, using their love for learning to propel themselves to greatness. The whiff of “educational” might mean that librarians will need to do some handselling to convince readers–burned by weaker nonfiction graphic novel series–to pick these titles up, but if you can get them in a child’s hands, he or she will thank you later.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Campfire.